I hit my first roadblock in Sarajevo. After
all of the successful and fruitful research and meetings in Albania, Kosovo,
Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia, I was stunned when I reached Bosnia and
found I couldn’t find my way “in” to this city – meaning the art world, of
course. I now realize that the reason for this setback may have been in part
due to the fact that I didn’t have that one person who could introduce me,
set me up with contacts and pave a way in to the otherwise closed scene. This was the first place
along my tour of the former Yugoslavia where it was very difficult to find
someone who would help me....at first.
It may also have been that there was simply a dark cloud hanging over this trip. Invariably, sometimes you are lucky in your research, and other times, you are not. But I was surprised that I was so unlucky in Sarajevo, of all places. After all, this was my third time in the city, a city that I knew well, and, quite frankly, loved. But bad luck was with me from the start. The first sign that things were going wrong came when I couldn’t get any service with my cell phone (ordinarily not an issue for me - I'm not glued to my phone - but problematic when trying to arrange meetings with people). Next, the hotel that I had booked turned out not to be what it promised to be, so I had to find a new places to stay within hours of landing. This less than smooth arrival brought back horrible memories of being yelled at by a taxi driver the previous time I came to Sarajevo, five years ago, because he wasn’t able to find the address of my hotel. I learned my lesson from that experience, and had a map printed out in case the taxi driver needed help this time. He found the place without it, but the place wasn’t what I expected it to be. Needless to say, my second arrival in Sarajevo was also rather bumpy.
I didn't manage to get in touch
with any artists in advance of my visit, despite having sent emails prior to my
trip. It also took quite a bit of doing to get in touch with anyone from the Center for
Contemporary Art, Sarajevo’s own former Soros Center, focused on promoting
contemporary art in country. I wasn't able to make contact before my arrival, and once I arrived it took several visits before I encountered anyone when I knocked on their door.
I was genuinely surprised by the lack of response from the people I approached in the art world. I knew that because it was summer, many people would be away, but experience has also taught me that no matter what time of year you go somewhere, someone is always away, but there are also plenty of people present, as well, even in summer. I was also aware that institutions usually close over the summer, but again, not all of them. There is always someone working, even if it is not with the most regular hours. Ironically, I had the best response from the artists from Bosnia who no longer live there, and are currently abroad, with promises of Skype meetings once my trip is over.
Needless to say I spent a frustrating few days in the beginning of my trip, wandering around the closed artistic institutions of the city. Sarajevo itself is also going through challenging times, culturally speaking. I knew about these closures before I arrived – in 2012, the National Museum closed its doors, along with the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The latter has since reopened, but, from what I can gather, exhibitions are intermittent. There were plans to build a contemporary art museum – and in fact a bridge by Renzo Piano was built across the Miljacka River to bring visitors there – but lack of funds has prevented any construction from taking place. Instead of a contemporary art museum, however, two public sculptures have been installed near the prospective building site, sandwiched nicely between the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (formerly the Museum of National Revolution) (which is still open, despite its slightly battered appearance, which it sustained during the Siege, and remains so as a witness to those times) and the closed National Museum. One, by Nebojsa Seric Shoba, is an ironic "Monument to the International Community by the grateful citizens of Sarajevo" - a giant can of beef resembling smaller ones that were sent as aid during the war, and could hardly be classified as food. The other piece, by Braco Dimitrijevic, is a "Monument to the Victims of the Cold War."
Other spaces for contemporary art have also suffered. The Ars Aevi collection, the result of one man’s vision, during the war, to create a space to build and preserve a collection of contemporary art in the city, has recently been closed, with apparently no reason given. The collection remains in its location in the Skenderija Center, but its doors are completely shut for the moment. Another creative space, the Charlama Gallery, started by artist Jusuf Hadzifejsovic (a performance and multi-media artist), was also closed by the owners of the Skenderija Center. One space that is still open in Skenderija, however, is the Collegium Artisticum, the oldest commercial gallery in the city.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina it is not only financial issues that have produced such a cultural meltdown, or shut down, as it has referred to, but also a lack of consensus as to how to run culture, or cultural institutions, in post-war BiH. In fact, there is currently no Ministry of Culture to administer this area at all. Although the war is over, the country is still divided, into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, and that division is quite vivid and evident. I’ve heard stories of delays in police responses because of uncertainties as to which police force should respond – those from the Federation or those from RS. So it is not surprising that there is a lack of consensus as to who, from which side, and how, cultural institutions should be run. In fact, I have the sneaking suspicion that this division is the reason that my phone wasn’t working here – because, after all, which phone company from which side should provide roaming for my network?
I found the Skenderija Center an interesting place to hold so many artistic venues. Currently, the building is a giant shopping mall, located underneath a sports arena, enlarged and expanded for the 1984 Olympics. Sport has a prominent place in this city as a result of hosting the Olympics back then, and it makes sense that if artists want gain attention, they would want to align themselves with sport. The location of so many art galleries and collections within a commercial center, however, is interesting from an art historical perspective. Historically, artists in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to distance themselves from the commercial aspects of art. Here, art (of the type which is not necessarily commercial) peacefully coexists beside nail salons and stores selling Nike and Adidas sneakers.
Despite these challenging times, great art is still being produced and exhibited in the capital of BiH. While the Center for Contemporary Art does not have a permanent exhibition space, exhibitions take place throughout the city, and this was intentional. The director of the Center, Dunja Blazevic, wanted contemporary art to be integrated in the life of the city, and structured the center’s programs in such a way that would enable that.
In some ways, artists in Sarajevo are used to
existing in difficult circumstances. In the 1980s, the Zvono Group, named after
a gallery and café near between the Skenderija Center and the Academy of Fine
Arts (now called Meeting Point), created performances, actions and
interventions throughout the city, in an absence of any fixed place to exhibit
their work. One of their most vivid performances was an intervention that took
place during a football match: the artists entered the field during half-time and painted on the field, using the teams' colors (Sport and Art, 1986). Again, in a city with
such a strong affinity with sport, this was an ideal way for these people to
make themselves heard as artists.
My week in Sarajevo started to turn around when I popped in to the Duplex100m2 Gallery, run by Pierre Courtin, an expat from France currently residing in BiH. I was able to purchase the catalogue of events and exhibitions that had taken place at his gallery during the last several years, and it really is amazing what has been created in this space in such a short amount of time – from exhibitions and installations, to performances and events. The catalogue is a veritable phonebook of contemporary artists in Bosnia, with resumes of their work and contact details as well. The gallery used to be located on Ferhadija, but is currently just downstairs from the Center for Contemporary Art at Obala Kulina Bana 22.
When I arrived at the Gallery there were several people involved in conversation. I sat down and waited for them to be finished. Suddenly, one of them asked me who I was and what I was doing in Sarajevo. I explained my project, and was duly informed that the woman sitting next to me was artist Nela Hasanbegovic. Also present there was Daniel Premec, whose impressive work Spiked I had seen online, installed in the Collegium Artisticum last year. Both artists have created some performances, in addition to installation and multi-media work. Nela and Daniel were kind enough to show me their portfolios and tell me about their work.
Meanwhile, in Banja Luka…
Meanwhile in Banja Luka, there were two artists ready, willing and eager to meet with me: Mladen Miljanovic, who represented Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Venice Biennale this year, and Borjana Mrdja. I had been to Banja Luka before, and quite liked the city. What I didn’t like, however, was the long, long ride (five hours by bus) to get there…nor did I like the prospect of doing this in 40-degree weather. But their work was so impressive, and since I was having such bad luck (aside from a brief and shining moment at the Duplex Gallery), that I simply could not pass up this opportunity to meet them. In the end, the bus ride wasn’t that bad (there was air conditioning, thankfully!) and the meetings were well worth it.
Back in Sarajevo
When I returned to Sarajevo I was lucky enough to finally get a meeting with a curator from the Center for Contemporary Art, who was incredibly kind and helpful. I was happy to finally have contact with the institution, and immediately, the city opened up to me. They were able to set me up with meetings with two artists that very day, Maja Bajevic and Alma Suljevic, not to mention providing a wealth of information otherwise.
What started off as a train wreck ended up being a relatively productive research trip. I have to admit, though, these setbacks knocked the wind out of my sails a bit; I even stopped writing for a while. It was frustrating, being in the city and knowing I had so little time on the ground, yet not being able to meet with people. This experience also underscored how much my research is dependent on the "kindness of strangers" and personal, human interaction. Once I did start contacting artists, many simply didn't want to meet, preferring me to send them questions by email, which seemed strange since I was there in person. Others referred to the "next time" I come, which led me to wonder why we had to wait until next time, when I was there at that moment. But, just like in a performance, you never know how your ‘audience,’ or the people around you, are going to react, so you have to adjust your actions accordingly. In the end, it all worked out; I met a number of great artists and got a lot of materials and definitely feel I have a better insight into the art scene in Bosnia. And as for the few artists that I was unable to meet…there is always Skype.